XXY Reviews: The Guerrilla Girls, ‘Is It Even Worse In Europe?’
XXY Reviews: The Guerrilla Girls, ‘Is It Even Worse In Europe?’
The Guerrilla Girls have been fighting for diversity and equality in the arts right from their inception in 1985. And since that moment, no one has ever seen their faces. That’s because the public only knows them by their gorilla masks: at once concealing the identities of the members, fictional superhero style, and demonstrating the attitude that the group take in making their point – a humourous one.
In 1986, the girl gang of activists produced a poster stating, “It’s even worse in Europe.” The new exhibition on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London revisits that idea, asking “Is it even worse in Europe?” It’s free, and relatively open-ended. The single room it fills displays answers to a questionnaire concerning underrepresented artists in galleries, museums and kunsthalle across Europe. Thought-provoking statistics adorn the walls of the exhibit, with bold graphics centered on relaying disturbing information rather than imagery. The gorilla mask is most likely enough of a visual. Maths and science are often put at odds with creative industries, but this exhibition almost uses a mathematical formula to calculate social inequality in the arts, leaving the interpretation to the audience. Make of these figures what you will, but can you believe it? The papers almost whisper.
On the floor lies a large list of all the places that refused to partake in the questionnaire, with the note, “Institutions that didn’t answer our questionnaire are listed here. Please feel free to walk on them… Love, Guerrilla Girls.” A ‘complaints’ section presented the grievances that some of the recipients had with the questions. The inclusion of the complaints is an interesting and subtle way to engage the viewers in the project. Consequently, writers, artists, students or anyone attending can get angry or sigh at the complaints for missing the point and attempting to defend the indefensible. Alongside laughing at the ridiculousness of the comments, the openness of the pieces makes you feel part of a movement that remains exciting even 31 years after it begun.
One complaint, from the Centre For Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, claimed that the kind of inequality the activists were tackling wasn’t being thoroughly attacked through their questionnaire and that actually, the questions were reproducing inclusivity:
“The questions do at times have a US-centric basis… it is not enough to address statistics and issues such as gender, identity or regionality if the same old organisational models are not challenged, too.”
Centre For Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
This criticism suggests that gaining equality in a broken system is useless, and so, why are the Guerrilla Girls bothering with fighting for representation? Perhaps their efforts would be better placed in attempting an entire overhaul of the art industry. Tasked with changing all ideas about art in one swoop is such an overwhelming notion that it becomes paralysing in terms of actual action. Establishing an entirely new system can only be brought about with the sincere support of institutions, galleries and collectors alike.
Likewise, when asked, “Are US Museum Practises polluting Europe?”, answers ranged from “Yes! Let’s fight!” (FRAC Lorraine, Metz, France) to the pessimistic “Malpractice is everywhere” (Witt, Rotterdam, Netherlands) and landing on the short, simple – “No” (The Guggenheim, Bilbao in Spain). It’s difficult to be any clearer on the influence of America on European museums, as everyone’s so sure in opposing views. One thing that is obvious is that no one has encouraged any American influence, and the French perhaps aren’t particularly happy about it. Only time will tell the impact of President-elect Trump on the arts. And who knows what answers this question may generate if asked again in a year.
A careful use of comedy ensures that one leaves feeling inspired to incite a change, rather than be miserable about the inequality rife in the art world. Several of the posters made by the Guerrillas are satirical, e.g. “Dear Art Collector, art is sooooo expensive! Even for billionaires! We completely understand why you can’t pay all your employees a living wage! Signed, Guerrilla Girls.” Pointing out the hypocrisy using sarcasm and irony – an effective way to remind us that yes, the state of art is really discriminatory in terms of elitism, racism and sexism, but look, we can change that and laugh as we do so. Take a walk on the museums that couldn’t be bothered to reply. Stomp if you fancy. It’s a small gesture, but it feels good, doesn’t it?
Another key comedic element is the gorilla masks themselves. Looking at their hairy, rubbery, ugly absurdity, they are indeed funny. Yet on another level, is it sad or deductive to the argument that the concept of anonymity works so well because you cannot see the women behind the masks? Paradoxically, it is women in everyday life that the artists have been – and continue to – fight for.
Despite assurance that Brexit won’t have an effect on the funding of cross-border art projects, amid the confusion and concern, it’s difficult to see a future ahead that is anything but blurry. It’s not the best time to be an artist. An erratic economy and unpredictable politicians are cutting funding for ‘soft subjects’ including art history for A-Level students in Britain. This lack of support from a business-orientated society is starting to express itself openly. But don’t forget, art has always been a way for creatives to express opinions that are often critical of the systems in which we live.
It may seem to many that now is perhaps the best time for a revolution in art, but remember the Guerrilla Girls have been campaigning with a cheeky smile behind those masks for just over three decades. As Karen Franklin, previous editor of i-D and campaigner of progressive attitudes towards representation in fashion, said, “It’s always a good time for a revolution”. Whether the Guerrilla Girls will get theirs remains to be seen. As the artists themselves have always maintained, “We were Guerrillas before we were Gorillas.” What’s for certain is that they will keep fighting until they do.
The Guerrilla Girls, “Is It Even Worse In Europe?” runs at the Whitechapel Gallery until 5th March, 2017.
Written by Annabel Waterhouse-Biggins,
Image credits: David Parry/PA Wire, Andrew Hinderaker and Daniel Weill courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery